Running form is a topic you will read about often, particularly ideas such as:
- Heel strike is bad
- A cadence of 180 steps per minute is optimal
- Either stand straight up or lean from the ankles
In this article I will try to make the why and the what understandable and help you improve.
First off let us ask “why?” We want to use the least amount of energy necessary to cover a certain distance at a certain rate of exertion (pace). We can then use any additional energy we have to go a longer distance or the same distance at a greater pace! There is no definitive marking for this, but many look at either muscle fiber recruitment or amount of oxygen needed & used (or both), The term we use at LEGGERS Wednesday Night Track is “lazy endurance”: not using any energy above what we need to complete the task as we want.
One item not mentioned in many popular articles on form is that the body relays back to the brain information regarding each step we take, and the brain then makes adjustments to become more efficient. Each step adjusts the next and then the next…etc. So, as we do our midweek workouts at an aerobic pace for thousands of steps our nervous and muscular systems are making adjustments to create a way of movement that is our best form.
But what about the ideas of foot strike, cadence, and stance mentioned earlier? Why do we hear about them? Let’s look at each oneHeel strike: For this we consider two things: the impact of our foot hitting the ground is great. We want the damage from the impact to be handled by the muscles designed for doing that (the glutes). The way this occurs is for the foot strike to be under our body’s center. Many people strike the ground in front of their body and in many cases especially with beginning athlete’s this comes with a heel strike. So, it is not heel striking but the striking in front of the body which is the issue.
180 cadence: Once upon a time an elite Coach and his wife were watching the Olympics and taping it. The Coach saw a pattern in the leaders of the marathon. Rewatching the tape he counted the steps and concluded they were all near 180 steps. And thus, the Gold Cert. for cadence became 180 steps per minute. As with heel striking, this is not the solution in itself. Think of a ball hitting the ground: it strikes the ground quickly and then converts the energy of the strike into forward motion for another bounce. The same is true for endurance athletes: we strike the ground, and our ligaments absorb the energy and then use that energy for our push off. If we strike the ground then stay there, we pass the energy to the ground and none is there for us (like the same ball now striking a pillow). So, a faster cadence that includes a ground strike just long enough to maximize energy absorbed and then used to go forward is what will benefit the athlete best,
Stance: Coach Bill Lockton has a great talk on how we can use gravity to our benefit the same way sprinters out of the blocks use it at the beginning of their race. In most talks on this subject though what the author really is saying is a forward tilt from the shoulders or the waist can cause issues: excess stress on upper back muscles and imbalance from the shoulders too far forward; the inability of the diaphragm to take in the maximum amount of air when we bend from the waist. A good stance to try is a slight bend at the ankles as if you are standing straight up from a driveway.
Finally, let us talk about the one thing our brain-muscles interaction cannot do: strengthen weak muscles. Abductors, adductors, glutes, all can cause issues that our body adjusts for – not for our desired purpose of being more efficient but just to prevent injury. A pelvis that dips affects our balance and range of motion. Weak glutes mean other muscles must do what they weren’t designed for, and injury can occur. Our body’s ability to rotate around a joint can be lessened by muscle imbalances. How do we correct these? By making use of our club’s relationship with Sports Physical Therapists and Sports Massage. Paulseth & Assoc. can watch you run and from training note areas that indicate weak muscles. They then can start a strength training program to add to the LEGGERS program Coach Stephanie created. LA Sports Massage can aid you in getting full rotation and show you techniques you can do at home to maintain this.
Making use of our partners, doing the miles on Saturday and during the week, will allow your brain and muscles to work to create the pattern you need to be a lazy endurance athlete who moves longer and faster maximizing the energy you have.
In closing I want to share a quote from a famous coach Arthur Lydiard:
“Forget about form. If a joker throws his arms around, that’s fine, so long as he is fit and relaxed. Then he runs smoother and easier, and form takes care of itself. We want the (person) who can run for two or three hours and come back looking as fit as (they) did when (they) went out.” (from page 84 of 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald.)